Bora Bora: the Pearl of the Pacific. Exclusive resorts with overwater bungalows and expensive drinks, Polynesian dance shows, and views of water with more shades of blue than Gauguin could ever capture on canvas. A place of honeymoons and vacations of a lifetime.
We spent 15 nights here, paying only for food, drinks, transportation, diving, a jet ski tour, and a few trips to the pharmacy. While having free accommodation made it possible for us to stay as long as we did, Bora Bora is expensive. Given that this is a dream destination for so many, we thought it might be helpful to write a more practical post about visiting and to let the photos show you the island.
Getting to Bora Bora
French Polynesia is comprised of five archipelagos: the Marquesas, the Tuamotos, the Austral, the Gambier, and the Society Islands. Tahiti, in the Society Islands, is home to capital city Papeete, where international flights land. We used American Airlines miles to fly from Auckland on Air Tahiti Nui (20,000 miles and $25.50 in taxes per person plus one $50 phone booking fee). The flight was about five hours but, as we crossed the International Date Line, took us back in time so that we had to pay for accommodation on the same date twice. We used Air BnB to find an affordable place to stay just outside Papeete where we hoped to catch a cargo ship to Bora Bora. There are only 12 places for passengers on the cargo ship, Hawaiki Nui, which makes the run twice a week. Unless you’re Polynesian, you won’t get one of those spots. Which means the only real option for getting to Bora Bora these days is to fly.
Only one airline flies within French Polynesia: Air Tahiti. The fares are set so it doesn’t matter if you buy one day or three months in advance as long as you keep an eye on availability for the date you want to fly. Having confirmed in Tahiti that we could not get tickets for the Hawaiki Nui, we bought plane tickets and learned quickly about the airline’s strict luggage policy. Each adult can check up to 10kg plus 5kg of dive gear – we were never asked to open our bag to prove that it was full of dive gear but we did have to show our certification cards. Hand luggage is limited to 6kg and at Papeete, random weight checks were introduced in April. Anyone with excess weight must pay overage charges. A one-way ticket costs around $250.
The flight to Bora Bora is short and scenic and the airport is on a motu (a tiny island close to an atoll or larger island). Those staying at the resorts on various motus are met by resort personnel and board a boat directly to the hotel. Everyone else takes the free Air Tahiti ferry to Vaitape and, if staying at a pension, meets their host at the pier in Vaitape. The resorts charge over $100 each way for the ferry. If using points to stay at one of the resorts, you could take the Air Tahiti ferry then find the resort’s regularly-scheduled ferry from town to the hotel but this could mean waiting for hours in the sun with nowhere to store your luggage. For the Intercontinental Thalasso, you’d need to get a taxi from Vaitape to the Intercontinental Le Moana for about $15 per person, then take the Intercontinental ferry to the Thalasso. Much cheaper than paying the hotel rate but potentially exhausting if it’s hot and you have multiple bags. You can also try hitchhiking to Matira Beach, walk to Le Moana, and catch the ferry if you really want to do this on the cheap.
We redeemed IHG points for five luxurious nights at the Intercontinental Thalasso Spa and Resort. Villas run approximately $850 to $1200 per night depending on how much privacy and what view you want. We used 50,000 points per night to book a garden bungalow and relied on Jen’s Ambassador status to get us an upgrade to the basic (Emerald) over-water villa. Apparently, one can now book award nights in over-water villas and use Ambassador status for an upgrade to a more private/ better view villa. The villas are all the same except for location so even if an upgrade doesn’t come through, you’ll still have a beautiful place to stay. If you want suggestions on how to earn IHG points, take a look at this.
From there, we did some CouchSurfing. It was a pleasant surprise to find multiple willing hosts on Bora Bora with whom we had a great time. We had our own bed and space with each host plus really enjoyed their company.
There are a number of family-run pensions on Bora, some of which we looked into before we secured CouchSurfing hosts. This website is a good resource for finding affordable accommodation throughout French Polynesia and especially in the Society Islands.
Eating, Drinking, and WiFi
Like most islands, much is imported and thus expensive. A tuna burger at the Thalasso runs about $29 while a room service breakfast for one person is $57. We had set aside a separate budget for our time at the Thalasso so we could enjoy ourselves but we still watched our expenses closely. We asked in advance for our mini-bar to be emptied so we could use the fridge and on our first full day there, we took the ferry to the main island and stocked up on basics at a nearby market. With the electric kettle provided for making tea and coffee, we made meals out of powdered soup mix and instant noodles; turned a room service breakfast for one into breakfast and lunch for two; and made the most of the fruit delivered to our room given Jen’s Ambassador status. We took advantage of two-for-one cocktails during happy hour and enjoyed the wine and vodka we picked up at duty free in Auckland. We refilled water bottles in the gym so we had cold water to drink at the beach or by the pool without having to buy new bottles at the bar. But we also had two dinners in the main restaurant, each with another couple we’d met, and dropped over $160 per dinner including a bottle of wine.
On the main island, we ate at the roulottes – food trucks that set up nightly in Vaitape and serve excellent fare starting at around $9; or at the inexpensive restaurants called “Snack.” Snack Matira, at one end of Matira Beach, has a beautiful view and good food. Snack Otoamana, near the opposite end of Matira Beach, offers an incredible bargain: $5.75 for a huge sandwich filled with eggs, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. Two people could easily share one. We also bought crepes and baked goods from a woman selling them by the road: 100 XPF for a chocolate or banana crepe is an excellent snack at about $1.15. And we cooked – there are two grocery stores in Vaitape each with its own benefits and we often found ourselves stopping at both to acquire ingredients for a meal. Chin Lee has tofu, better produce, and apparently better meat. Super U is generally cheaper and has larger bread and wine selections but only takes credit cards for purchases over 2000 XPF (about $23).
We didn’t drink much on Bora Bora but the MaiKai Marina has two-for-one draft beer 5-6pm and free WiFi so although I don’t love the local Hinano, for 450 XPF (about $5.20), it’s a great place to be at sunset. The WiFi here reaches outside to the shaded lounge area even when the restaurant is closed so it’s worth having a few drinks to get the password. Le St. James is another sunset spot but drinks are more expensive. Lights under the dock attract fish and apparently manta rays but we never saw one.
Aloe Café in the heart of Vaitape isn’t as cheap as the snack options on Matira Beach but for lunch with WiFi included, it’s the only affordable option. If there’s a cruise ship in town, this place may be packed but otherwise you’ll see mostly hotel employees here. A few restaurants near the Intercontinental Le Moana and Sofitel are also options although a bit more expensive than the snack places. Restaurants and roulottes come and go so ultimately, what you find will likely differ but if you’re willing to look around, take long walks, and share meals, you can get by. When we couchsurfed, we had multiple days when we spent well below $50 for the two of us to eat, go to the beach, and generally enjoy ourselves.
Getting Around and Keeping Busy
There is no bus (called le truck throughout French Polynesia) on Bora Bora so your options are renting a car, scooter, or bicycles; taking cabs; or hitchhiking. We got really lucky with one of our couchsurfing hosts who loaned us a scooter while we stayed with him. The rest of the time, we discovered that locals are often happy to pick up two foreign women walking along the road. We were offered rides even when we didn’t stick out our thumbs – and we always felt safe the times we accepted rides.
Other than sunning yourself, swimming, and snorkeling, pretty much anything you can do on Bora Bora costs money. Many of the resorts offer their guests free use of kayaks, snorkeling gear, and stand-up paddle boards so if you’re using points to stay at one, take advantage of whatever’s offered. But if you have your own mask, snorkel, and fins, you can pretty easily pass a day on Matira Beach and snorkeling in the lagoon. If you can get your hands on a kayak there, head out to the coral garden, wedge the kayak on the rocks, and snorkel this shallow area teeming with fish. The Intercontinental resorts have free daily activities: a rotating selection that begin at noon poolside including a coconut demonstration (how to open and eat a coconut), hat weaving, and a demonstration on multiple ways to wear a pareu (a/k/a sarong); plus a 2pm daily stingray feeding at the Thalasso. The fun begins around 1:30 when the stingrays start to gather. We only attended these while guests at the Thalasso. Whether you feel comfortable attending while not staying at the resort is up to you!
If you want a nice view from the water, take the Air Tahiti ferry to and from the airport. If you want access to a pool, do as the locals and head to the Sofitel. On Sunday afternoons, a DJ spins poolside and you’ll see plenty of Polynesians and Pupa (what the locals call the French residents) having drinks, swimming, and generally taking it easy. If you want to dive, jetski, or take a 4×4 tour of the island, you’ll pay dearly for it – for example, a dive runs anywhere from 5,500 XPF (around $63) to 8,000 XPF ($92) depending on the dive shop you use and the deal you work out.
Bora Bora is a beautiful place and although getting there can be expensive, it can be enjoyed on a budget. If you’re planning a trip and have questions for us, please leave a comment or get in touch, we’re happy to share what we know!